Friday, November 14, 2008

Dread: As I Was Saying...

... before I was distracted by those miscreant lights, I was planning to put out some thoughts on the matter of dread. I had taken note of this feeling that persisted, despite the elation of last week's election results. (Last week? Does it not seem like a year ago? And yet we still have sixty-six days and ten more hours of Bush... Time is doing strange things to my consciousness right now.)

Dread, then. It's a close relative of fear, of course. But as I see it, fear has generally a more specific cause than dread, which is the sum of all unexpressed, perhaps unknowable fears. The German language has an excellent word for what I'm trying to get at: unbeweltigt. It means "not brought into the world"--unconscious, in that sense. In the years following World War II, when many Germans understandably wanted nothing more than to forget the recent past, when the memory and the guilt for actions taken in their name was almost more than they could bear and tended to get buried, some spoke of the "unbeweltigte Vergangenheit," the unconscious past. And, like most word-for-word translations, "unconscious" doesn't quite do it. It's bigger, more difficult, more pervasive, and somehow more physical.

I think of dread as a kind of "unbeweltigte Zukunft," as it were, an unconscious future. The word came up for me the other day, on our anniversary, as a matter of fact, when Ellie and I were walking and talking about what was on our minds. And I was much aware of the euphoria that followed the election of Barack Obama, that almost audible sigh of national relief--in part because the too long months of the campaign were over, in part because the result suggested a truly radical change in the way we Americans want to be in the world, and in relation to each other.

I trust that these hopes are true. And yet I confess that there's some part of me that is surprised to find itself still waiting for the other shoe to drop--another neat definition of dread, I think. Not that I have any specific or identifiable fears. Well, actually, I do have some, but they're not what I want to talk about. It's the dread. It's that unidentifiable feeling at the pit of the stomach, the low-level but persistent sense of insecurity, of not-knowing what's around the corner--a feeling that, when I come to think about it, I realize has accompanied me throughout my life. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. I can go for months, for years perhaps, without even remembering that it's there. But I believe that I have never lived a single moment without it--at least since those earliest days before I became conscious of my separate individuality.

In the days of infancy, I understand from my readings in psychology, there is a sense of oneness in one's experience of ther world. There is no "I" or "other." And I know that in certain ecstatic moments--and sometimes, too, in meditation--I can come near that blissful state again. And I think that dread has somehow to do with that loss, that separation between self and other, that sense of radical incompleteness. I suspect--though I have no means of determining--that it's a feeling that is common to all human beings, though some may feel it more acutely and more persistently than others. And I further suspect that it's root cause is the awareness of death.

There is something in all of us that wants to live forever. Those of us who remain unconvinced--and unconsoled--by some form of religious belief that there is "life after death" must share in the dread that accompanies the prospect of the end of life. It's the fear of the unknown and the unknowable that provides us with the ultimate, unanswerable question about our brief sojourn on the planet Earth. There may be believers whose faith is so strong that it puts them beyond the reach of dread. I suspect they are few in number. Even among the most devoted of the faithful, I suspect that there is some "unbeweltigt" experience of dread, some vague unease, at moments, in the deepest recess of the belly, some ancient memory of those days when we humans huddled around the fire at the mouth of the cave, surrounded by darkness and danger, vulnerable to the attack of sharp-toothed monsters--or to diseases of which we had only the most primitive understanding.

Come to think of it, things haven't changed too much since then! I sit here, after the much-publicized day of practice, yesterday, for California's Big One, and tremble at the thought that it could happen at any moment. I sit here, in the knowledge that the global ecomony is collapsing all around us, and that tomorrow could knock the financial foundations out from under me. I sit here in the knowledge that the heart that has served me well for more than seventy years could suddenly decide that it was time to quit...

Well, those are my fears. Some of them. Their sum total is, well... dread. Without which, of course--and lest this seem like an unnecessary downer!--I would be unable to experience its counterpart, sheer joy. That's the blessing part.

3 comments:

John Torcello said...

Doesn't a feeling of dreadfulness arise in us when, finding ourselves situated in the present moment, we realize we can't truly know there is a tomorrow and we fail to accept the notion of a sense of 'faith' that there indeed will be a tomorrow; another chance at getting it right (or wrong) whatever our choice might be...

mandt said...

Excellent post Peter! Dread, it seems to me, is the hologram of Maya, and the physical, but unconscious unfolding of death with every breath. Most paradigms of religion deny ego extinction except Buddhism, which distinguishes ego as merely one form of consciousness. But I find that those of us conditioned in the West, even with decades of Buddhist practice have deep internal paradox wounds of dualism from Christian conditioning.
Infancy does not seem to me to be a 'wholeness' state, but quite the opposite when 'species differentiation' is genetically present, because survival depends on awareness of the differentiation almost immediately in a hostile world. Thus, Buddhist practice is similar, in that attachment to survival and its reflex of dread become, at least for me, major points of practice----very difficult because such reflexes are biological. The Tibetan practice of phowa is a good source of facing such conflict. Another source of practice and one that helped my father in his last years was at least a layman's understanding of theoretical physics----a language remarkably similar to Mayahayan tantric teachings. Peace M

naftali camiel said...

Hi Peter. I really enjoy hearing some of your more philosophical ideas, Thank you. Naftali.